Environment, Trump Administration

Federal judges puts the kibosh on seismic testing permits during government shutdown

Last February, BOEM held a public comment session in Raleigh about its plan to allow seismic testing and offshore drilling off the NC coast. Hundreds of people protested against the proposal beforehand. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The Trump administration is prohibited from issuing permits for seismic testing in the ocean during the government shutdown, a federal court ruled Tuesday.

Energy exploration companies conduct seismic testing to try to discover potential spots that contain oil or natural gas below the ocean floor. Science has shown that seismic testing, which produces extremely loud, persistent blasts of sound beneath the sea, can harm and even kill marine life, from whales down the food chain to plankton. Five exploration companies have asked for permits to begin the testing.

The Hill reported the story yesterday afternoon.

In addition to environmental groups, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has opposed energy exploration and seismic testing off the North Carolina coast, citing potential environmental damage and economic threats to tourism because of accidents or spills. Likewise, nearly every coastal government in North Carolina has publicly stated its opposition.

From The Hill:

Justice Department attorneys representing the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had asked [Judge] Gergel to pause the case during the shutdown because they could not write filings. Gergel granted that pause, but said that the same logic means BOEM should be prohibited from granting any permits until the government reopens.
He noted that last week Interior asked furloughed employees to return to work in order to process the seismic testing applications. …

The story goes on:

Federal attorneys had told the judge previously that the BOEM would not issue testing permits during the shutdown. But the agency later updated its shutdown plan to bring in employees to work on the permits, and attorneys told the court that the permits might be issued as early as March 1.

 

Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center, Trump Administration

As shutdown lingers, unemployment insurance claims for N.C.’s federal workers in holding pattern

President Donald Trump (Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

As highlighted last week in The News & Observer, the federal shutdown is having another ripple effect through North Carolina.

That’s because recent state policy changes make it harder for agencies to respond to community needs that arise when the unexpected occurs.  Federal workers’ claims to receive unemployment insurance are not being paid, leaving a critical stabilizer to household budgets and local economies unavailable to far too many in our state.

The article noted that the state unemployment insurance system is accepting claims but not currently issuing payments for claims made by federal workers affected by the shutdown. A look at weekly claim numbers confirms that there is, as yet, no spike in the number of claims issued over the extended federal shutdown.

In part that is due to the complicated nature of the shutdown, where some federal workers are showing up to work without pay, while others are furloughed. In the case of those essential workers working without pay, current guidance suggests these workers are not able to claim unemployment insurance.

However, questions remain about the urgency for federal workers, enough so that Gov. Gavin Newsome in California is considering providing unemployment insurance to these workers. Guidance says furloughed workers can receive unemployment insurance benefits, but will need to repay the benefits when the shutdown ends and back pay is received.

Many states have proactively made clear the guidelines for those federal workers affected by the shutdown, including prominent placement on websites about the claims process and making clear their willingness to support workers through this difficult time.

In North Carolina, state changes make the matter even more complicated. New requirements state that the Division of Employment Security must give employers 10 days to respond to a claim before moving that claim forward. But right now, many employers themselves are difficult to reach because they are not at work. A second requirement — reporting on the number of work searches —is impossible for most federal workers to meet because they are not looking for work but instead waiting to be recalled.

For contract workers and others whose employers have been impacted by the federal shutdown, their job loss, through no fault of their own, leaves them to access a flawed North Carolina unemployment insurance program — one that replaces the lowest share of lost wages of any state in the country for the fewest number of weeks, and with the lowest recipiency rate in the country.

A number of states are taking steps to ensure federal workers and those affected by the shutdown are able to access unemployment insurance.  Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico proposed waiving work search requirements. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is weighing providing unemployment benefits, including tapping into state funds to do so, so that people have the security of dollars coming in to stabilize their budgets.  Read more

News, Trump Administration

Local TSA employee on working without pay during shutdown: “We can’t keep doing this”

As the federal government shutdown plods through its third week thanks to Republican demands that Democrats agree to fund President Trump’s border wall scheme, its impacts are starting to have real and serious impacts here in North Carolina.

Take, for instance, the issue of airport security. A veteran Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer who works at a North Carolina airport told Policy Watch today that the point in time at which some TSA employees will need to start looking for new jobs or, at the least, applying for unemployment insurance and/or emergency loans is fast approaching.

“We can’t keep doing this” said the officer, who asked not to be identified in order to avoid any possibility of retribution.

The employee said that while many TSA supervisors have been furloughed, he and other front line workers find themselves in a situation in which all leave has been cancelled and prospects for getting paid for the work they’ve done in recent weeks seem remote, at best.

A potentially devastating hit to the worker and his colleagues will take place this coming Saturday, January 12, he said. That’s when the employees would ordinarily see the first paycheck of the year hit their bank accounts via direct deposit.

And while some workers — especially those with other sources of household income — may be able to make do for a while longer, that won’t be the case if the shutdown continues (As Trump has indicated it might). The TSA employee said that if workers miss a second paycheck later in the month, many will have trouble making February 1 rent and mortgage payments. “This has gotta end pretty soon,” he said.

In addition to the immediate hardship the shutdown is inflicting on TSA employees, there may be another, longer-lasting negative impacts from the shutdown according to the employee — namely, overall TSA staffing and effectiveness. The employee related that the hiring process at TSA can, understandably, take an extended period.

“It took me a year to get hired,” the employee noted thanks, at least in part, to the intense background checks and physical examinations to which TSA security applicants are subjected. With hiring being coordinated by outside private contractors that, in some instances, already confronted sizable backlogs even prior to the shutdown, the employee observed, the prospect of hiring replacements for TSA employee who resign to seek employment elsewhere could be make for some significant staffing problems going forward.

Commentary, Trump Administration

Environmental expert explains utter absurdity of Trump’s border wall

The 2008 Rio Grande Flood, near Presidio TX. CREDIT: National Park Service.

As the Trump border wall government shutdown drags on into its third week, it’s worth considering an important but rarely reported fact that stands in the way of the very idea of a wall along the U.S. Mexico border: a little thing called the Rio Grande River.

Environmental policy expert, Dr. Joe Romm of Think Progress explained earlier today:

…the overwhelming majority of the border, where there isn’t some form of barrier, runs straight down the middle of 1,254 snaking miles of the enormous Rio Grande River.

But the Rio Grande routinely floods. In fact, as ThinkProgress previously reported, flooding has gotten more frequent and more severe in recent years thanks to climate change.

The Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment concluded in November that “record-breaking flooding events increased over the past 30 years” in the Southern Great Plains (Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas) — and that extreme flooding events are only going to get worse.

That’s why, Romm points out, an almost-50 year old treaty bans such construction along the border:

But putting barriers in the Rio Grande floodplain was actually banned long before countries started worrying about climate change.

The 1970 “Treaty to Resolve Pending Boundary Differences and Maintain the Rio Grande and Colorado River as the International Boundary” states that the joint U.S.-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) “must approve construction of works proposed in either country” along those rivers. It explicitly prohibits the construction of projects “which, in the judgment of the commission, may cause deflection or obstruction of the normal flow of the river or of its flood flows.”

…If Trump flagrantly violates the treaty to build his wall, not only will it lead to court challenges, but it will worsen relations with the very country we need to work with if the United States is to improve the border situation….

The bottom line is that building a concrete or steel wall or barrier along the Rio Grande River is a terrible and illegal idea. And yet, the president is shutting down much of the federal government simply because Congress won’t fund it.”

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

As investigation inches closer to Trump, Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in prison

Donald Trump speaking

President Donald Trump

By this point, we would imagine the president is hearing footsteps behind him.

Of course, it’s difficult to put yourself in Donald Trump’s size 12 loafers, as it seems increasingly clear that he’s been implicated in at least a pair of campaign finance violations. But today’s news out of a New York courtroom indicates that our toxic tycoon is legally and politically imperiled as he watches the investigations march ever closer to his office.

From Politico today:

A contrite Michael Cohen on Wednesday received three years in prison for a series of tax fraud and lying charges, sending another former Donald Trump associate to jail.

Cohen’s sentence is not as large as the four-plus years that federal prosecutors in New York wanted, but it nonetheless stands out as the biggest punishment to date tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The sentence also puts a coda on the dramatic downfall for the 52-year-old longtime Trump lawyer who served in the president’s inner circle as recently as this spring but turned on the man he declared he’d “take a bullet for” soon after FBI agents raided his home, office and hotel room.

In the courtroom Wednesday, Cohen, wearing a black suit and blue tie, was visibly emotional. His eyes were red rimmed and at various points he broke down, his voice cracking while he read a prepared statement he had printed out.

“Today is the day that I am getting my freedom back,” Cohen told U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley, a Bill Clinton appointee who minutes later handed down the prison sentence. “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired.”

In addition to the prison time, which is scheduled to begin with his surrender to federal authorities on March 6, Cohen will have to forfeit $500,000 in assets and pay $1.393 million in restitution.

Cohen, who has had a relationship with Trump dating back a dozen years, used his time before the court to hit back at the president’s recent declaration that his former attorney was “weak.” Cohen said he agreed with Trump’s assessment but noted his “weakness was a blind loyalty to Donald Trump.”

“Time and time again I felt it as my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said, standing before his whole family in the courtroom. Both his mother and father cried at points during the hearing.

Minutes after Cohen learned his fate in court, Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani took a swing at the president’s former attorney by noting the size of his sentence compared to others in the special counsel’s 19-month old investigation.

“This is the real criminal sentence,” Giuliani told POLITICO. “I have no idea if it’s the right one or not, but I do know he’s proven to be a consummate liar who has lied at all stages of his situation.”

Cohen earlier this summer pleaded guilty with New York prosecutors to a slate of eight charges of tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance violations. Trump himself was implicated in the campaign finance crimes, with prosecutors saying he directed Trump in hush money payments designed to sway the 2016 presidential election. Cohen also later pleaded guilty with Mueller in November to lying to Congress about work he did during the election on an aborted Trump Tower project in Russia.

The judge on Wednesday slapped Cohen with a $50,000 fine for lying to Congress in the special counsel’s case, explaining that the penalty was meant “to recognize the gravity of the harm of lying to Congress in matters of national importance.” Two months of his three-year sentence are also tied to the lying-to-lawmakers charge.

Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen

Trump’s legal picture is growing inexorably darker as the White House considers its search for a new chief of staff. North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows is reportedly among the frontrunners for the dubious distinction.

Whether or not federal lawmakers consider the alleged campaign finance crimes to be an impeachable offense is clearly up for debate, but it seems likely that the president’s legal troubles may soon come to a head.

More from Politico:

Although Cohen’s sentence is the largest handed down to date for anyone targeted in Mueller’s probe, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is expected to receive far more time in prison. The longtime GOP lobbyist will learn his fate early next year from a pair of federal judges and is likely spending decades in prison following his conviction earlier this summer on bank and tax fraud charges in Virginia and a separate guilty plea in Washington.

Legal experts said Cohen’s three-year jail term isn’t a surprise for someone who has admitted guilt and helped prosecutors advance their cases.

“It is a fair and reasonable sentence that punishes him and sends a message to others who are considering committing similar crimes,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami.

Cohen’s conviction and sentence also doesn’t bode well for the president, said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump golf partner who in January will become chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Anytime a former lawyer of yours goes to jail it’s probably not a good day,” the South Carolina senator said.